Direct Marketing of Modern Dance


Russell Lapso (1981) ,"Direct Marketing of Modern Dance", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 90-91.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 90-91


Russell Lapso, Russell Lapso Assoc.

I must admit that I have muddied my hands in consumer realities. However, I am not a researcher; so you are not going to see numbers. I am a marketer. More specifically I am a direct marketer; which means that I am a specialist in advertising that does not purely serve to precondition consumers or to affect attitudes, but rather to motivate consumers to take immediate action. The action is most often to return a direct mail reply card, to call a toll free number, or to make an immediate transaction.

Direct marketing is, perhaps, the aspect of advertising that has traditionally used research the least. Since it is advertising that is believed to be directly quantifiable, its success is measured not by recall studies or tracking research, but more often by actually counting orders and tallying up the sales. This research approach has been sustained by the belief that traditional research methods, which tell us what people say they will do or what they say they think, have not been successful in predicting what people actually do when they are confronted by a direct mail package or a reply card in their home.

Early in 1979 1 became involved in the marketing problem of the dance world. Today I will relate to you the research applications of that involvement. The problem I dealt with concerns modern dance companies and specifically involves their finances. Modern dance companies traditionally lose money hand-over-fist when they put on a New York "season" (i.e. program of performances). It is not uncommon for a modern dance company to spend all of the income that it makes on tour during the year to offset the deficit that it has incurred by doing the New York season. Having a "New York season" is, however, essential for gaining recognition; of both a critical a and spiritual nature. New York is home in more ways than one.

Concerned about these continuing deficits, several different dance companies began talking about a joint promotional effort and its possible benefits to them; for example, advertising economies, continuity of attendance) increased advanced sales and jointly shouldered risks. However, their confidence in the viability of the plan was not high. This lack of confidence stemmed from the basic nature of the artists, themselves. The reality is that when you are observing a dance company you are observing individuals who are all "maverick" people with very strong opinions that are not shared by any other individual on the face of the earth. This "artistic temperament" plus insecurities about being forced to program their schedules far ahead of time made the likelihood of a joint effort seem dubious. It was also felt that the modern dance consumer does not buy tickets in advance. A modern dance consumer knows that modern dance performances generally do not sell out, and therefore that they can go to the box office that night and get a perfectly good seat. This perception on the part of the audience unfortunately does not help us with our goal of generating advance sales.

A second perception was that the primary audience for dance in New York consists of an extremely small group of fans, intensely loyal to individual choreographers, who would only pay very modest prices for tickets. This implies that a certain dance company with a studio in the SoHo area of New York assumes that all its audience is poor students who are living in SoHo. That perception was a difficult thing to overcome. It was believed that the subscriptions sold in advance would only take away single ticket sales; that is, that demand was constant. By using advance ticket sales we would just be getting it at a different point in time; and if we were discounting the advance tickets we would be getting even less.

Despite these doubts, it was decided to try an advance ticket promotion because of their desparate financial situation in putting on a New York season. Thus the program called "Masters of American Dance,"initially funded by three major foundations, was undertaken. An advertising agency I was then with was given the marketing task. The only research we possessed at that time were audience surveys taken at previous performances that basically said the audience was very diverse and read the New York Times a lot! That is what I had to go on!

To begin our campaign, we constructed an in-the-mail-test of offers and strategies in an attempt to find the best way to get the optimal combination of attendance and revenue. Our research questions were:

1. Could patrons be motivated to see all five dance companies being presented in an umbrella subscription called Masters of American Dance; or would patrons prefer to select only those companies of particular interest to them?

2. How often would these people want to go?

3. Where would they want to sit in the theatre?

4. How important is pricing?

5. Would a discount be an important motivation to subscribe, rather than to not go at all or to be a single ticket buyer?

6. What should the leading element be in our overall strategy?

7. Is this a "price story" or do we talk about the aesthetic experience?

Unfortunately, there were so many unknowns (while the budget was very known and very small) that it was impossible to structure a really valid test. What we did is not perfect, because we were not able to isolate all the variables. Our plan was to create five different direct mail packages and mail them to statistically similar groups of consumers from the New York Metropolitan area. For each of our five dance companies--the Lamone, Nicoli, Ailey, Louis, and Cunningham Troops--we had separate inserts which discussed each repertory. These were housed inside a wrap-around subscription brochure. This remained constant throughout our test. The first of the five packages we called an "invitation package"; it copied many of the strategies that are often used in our promotions in New York. It announced a special invitation to subscribers, patrons and supporters of New York cultural institutions; the mailing label read: "Alvin Ailey, Russ Cunningham, Ray Louis, Calvin Maxwell and Alvin Nicoli cordially invite you to this event." Thus, it was an appeal to the ego as well as an invitation. We offered a choice of three performance subscriptions, five performance subscriptions, or seven performance subscriptions. This allowed the consumer to see everyone, to see everything. The package dramatized savings through the use of a savings certificate, which enabled one to save $25 on an order of $100 or more. The average regular value orchestra ticket is $15; so for a five performance subscription for two people, there is a savings of $150. Within the five dance groups one could choose to see a single performance of each or only of four. Therefore, if you already detested one choreographer, you could avoid him.

In the second package, we doubled the value. Here the savings certificate is for $50 on a purchase of $100 or more. This package again offered the consumer anything s/he wanted. This played off what we saw as a New York kind of instinct to "shop." We created series of every possible configuration. Everything from two performances of the Lamone Company for only $19 all the way up to the "grand tour," which was 11 performances every first evening of a program at $89.

Another package took the same basic financial offering included in the $50 certificate package and just positioned it a different way. Instead of telling the consumer that he or she was going to save $50, we told them that this was an amazing $99 subscription for two people, This meant that you could have two top dollar orchestra or mezzanine seats to five performances, 10 tickets altogether, for $99. We eliminated all the choices that I believe serve to slow down buying decisions. We made all of the choices for them. We didn't complicate it. We approached it from the other end. Instead of saying "Save $25" on the envelope, we said on the envelope that "if you opened this it might cost you $99"; which is kind of radical for direct marketing. But this is the package that was most successful for us, and was used in the mass mailing. In the fall it was translated into a New York Times advertisement.

Overall, the differences among the five packages were not dramatic. We saw this as a vote of confidence for the product. The invitation offer, the first one, having the traditional snob appeal, generated the best response rate and generated the most income. However, we found that the $99 package gave us the best attendance, and the concern of filling the house was as big a concern as making money.

Another finding was that the best selling series were those which sold one performance of each company. When people were confronted with the five companies, they were not interested in making decisions about which to attend, and so a sampler which gave them one of each was desirable. A second finding was that we were attracting new consumers, rather than selling to what was the old traditional market. We found by a list analysis that the new consumers were from far beyond the modern dance arena, The theatre-goer's list, the museum goer's list, and the opera goer's list all pulled orders much better than the modern dance lists.

We also found that there's a "Pavlovian effect" operating. People responded best to the information display they were used to. The New York Shopper package, which was incredibly confusing with lots of fine print you had to wade through, was found to be the best package for people on the Carnegie Hall list. If you have ever noticed Carnegie Hall ads in the New York Times you know that they are really confusing and detailed. People on the art list responded best to the saving certificate, which they are used to. People who attend the Metropolitan Opera went right for the invitation package, which they are used to.

We also found that single ticket sales were not affected at all by the subscription, which further leads us to believe that we opened up a whole new market for dance. Every company made vast strides in income generated. A couple of the companies, in fact, doubled their previous best attendance and revenue levels. That, to me, says we are broadening the audience for the arts.

If we are attracting new people, who are they? Why is this attractive to them? One basic feeling I have, is that this promotion broke down the modern dance barrier.  So often in an aesthetic marketing area, the artistic uniqueness is so great that you end up talking to yourself. Traditionally, a modern dance company has projected a single image, which the artistic director likes, approves of, and feels good about. There is no selling copy, there is no romance. The promotion consists of a statement of fact, a list of works, and that is all. This approach is fine as long as you are going to keep within the tight little modern dance audience framework and as long as you are going to continue talking to people who already know you. But that kind of posture is threatening to someone who has a history of "consuming" only Broadway or opera and really doesn't know anything about modern dance. Our approach did a good job of making modern dance look non-threatening, something the new consumer would be welcomed in.

My next point is that this promotion, in some ways, is a shot in the dark. What we found through later telephone interviews and focus group interviews is that people bought these tickets as a way to learn about modern dance. These are consumers who really want to open up and be challenged by something; who really want a different kind of sensation. When I am being sarcastic, I call this the "cheap thrills" market. It is not really, but they are looking for a different kind of stimulation. What they found attractive was the opportunity to experiment; it was a great low priced way to experience different things. This was an exciting thing for them. But the reason I believe they are not going to resubscribe in the traditional way is that these people used this as an education. For the first time a broader market was given a package that was almost a Whitman Sampler of an art form; this enabled them to experiment and to experience a cross-section of modern dance. Based on that opportunity, which they appreciated, they have made up their minds. Basically, we are training new people to consume modern dance. Exposing this art form to new people may or may not result in a larger dance audience in years to come.



Russell Lapso, Russell Lapso Assoc.


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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